“Francesco, Giullare di Dio,” which means Francis, the fool or the jester of God, has been known in English by the title of the collection of utterances of St. Francis of Assisi, “The Little Flowers (I fioretti) of Saint Francis.” The episodic (one might say “anti-dramatic”) 1950 movie—directed by Roberto Rossellini, written by Federico Fellini and Rossellini—is actually more based on The Life of Father Ginapro than on The Little Flowers. There are only three (of the total of ten) episodes that are drawn from The Little Flowers.
Brother Ginapro, played by Brother Severino Pisacane, was a simple (verging on “simple-minded”) follower of Francis within the original band (on the plain below the Umbrian hill-town of Assisi). Brother Ginapro is the focus of the three of the most memorable sequences from the film (explaining how he was returning again without his tunic, cooking all the food at once, and going off to preach to invaders), plus the wince-inducing “How Brother Ginapro Cut Off the Leg of a Pig for a Sick Brother”).
Rather than the story of the life of St. Francis (as in Franco Zeffirelli’s gorgeous, big-budget color-film reconstruction of the era in the 1972 “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”), Rossellini et al. made the film about the collective. There is a wordless scene of Francis overcoming his antipathy to embrace a leper and one of him talking to (more than preaching at) birds, but most often he is shown subordinating his wit and will (and ego) to the lowest common denominator, level of the masses—not just his band of followers, but those they encounter outside their cramped living quarters and more imposing chapel.
Francis (a charismatic Brother Nazario Gerardi) and his followers were played by actual Franciscan monks (novices) of the Nocera Inferiore Monastery near Maiori. Fellini had found them immediately after World War II. He and Rossellini persuaded them to play on-screen monks in a quietest interlude of Rossellini’s episodic (but very dramatic in its other segments) 1946 film Paisá. The one professional actor involved, Aldo Fabrizi, hammed it up as the oversize tyrant Nicolaio, first in ludicrous armor hiding his face, then making faces in heavy makeup at Brother Ginapro. (The grotesque humor of this and the other Ginapro sequences is very unlike anything else in the body of Rossellini’s work, though his daughter Isabella claims he was very funny in real life. Genaro’s (mis)adventures foreshadows sequences of surrealistic humor in several Fellini movies, and these scenes must have been written primarily by Fellini.)
Although made during the tumult of European rebuilding after the Second World War, shorn of the opening historical contextualization that originally opened the movie (some of the footage is included as an extra on the Criterion DVD), there is a timeless quality to the movie. The fervent band of brothers have cassocks (and tonsures) and are shown out in the countryside. Since the movie only covers a few years of the life of Francis and his disciples, there is no need for the costumes and decor of his earlier life as the son of a rich merchant or of his visit to the pope (phases that Zeffirelli shot in San Gimignano and Monreale, respectively). The brothers are out in the rain or out in the country or in the two modest edifices they build. When Brother Ginapro goes to preach to the barbarian invaders, they look like Vikings. The tyrant has a tent, but that and the stairway of one medieval house are the only interiors other than the two huts and chapel of the proto-order of Franciscans on the plain below Assisi. The town of Assisi is never shown. (Obviously, the great basilica in which Francis is entombed was not built until after the stories that are illustrated in the movie, an Little Flowers was written after his death.)
The final sequence is a particular marvel. Francis disbands the monastery, sending the brothers out into the world to preach. They ask him where they should go. He has them spin until they are dizzy and then to go in the direction they face when they fall. There is a lengthy medium shot of Franciscan whirling dervishes. All but the old man, Giovanni, fall. He cannot turn fast enough to get dizzy. There are closeups of Francis patiently watching, and Giovanni slowly spinning. The real-life beggar who played the part did not remember what he was supposed to say (the name of a town, like what the others had said) and said he would “go in the directions those birds are flying.” Rossellini realized that this was a far better (more Franciscan) answer than the one Giovanni was supposed to provide. The men disperse, singing. As they disappear off the edge of the frame or become smaller and smaller on the screen as they move off, the chorus (singing a “Te Deum Laudamus”) swells on the soundtrack.
Rossellini (et al.) never mocks the simple(-minded) children of God who gather around Francis nor condescends to the joys of self-mortification of Francis and his merry men. There is no psychology, no political, economic, or psychological analysis. Rossellini had real Franciscans show something of the origins of their order and documented it without fancy camerawork. Though the camera is not static, it mostly stays at eye level. The cinematography of Otello Martelli is unobtrusive, but generally beautiful. Insofar as it is possible to show hope in a shattered world (an earlier one than the bombed-out one shown in Paisá and, even more so, in Germany, Year Zero (1947)), Martelli and the Franciscans did so.
The movie was released for the Christmas season of the Jubilee Year of 1950 and was a resounding commercial failure (grossing $13,000 in its Italian release). Even more than Umberto D, which also lost money for producer/publisher Angelo Rizzoli, its recognition came from outside Italy and more slowly. (It was championed by André Bazin, whose essay is included in the Criterion DVD booklet. Truffaut and Pasolini were outspoken in their admiration of the movie—and Pasolini’s own “The Testament According to St. Matthew” was clearly influenced by the look of the band of Franciscan brothers in Rossellini’s movie. American advocate of auteur theory, Andrew Sarris, placed “Little Flowers” in the #8 slot in his listing of the best movies of all times. On its initial release—at a time that Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman were being denounced in the US Senate—the leftist critics were appalled at the lack of social realism (mandated by Stalinist culture policy) and collusion with Catholic mystification, while some Catholic critics were upset that the saint was shown as human (shorn of his halo) and leading a band of half-wits and suspected that Rossellini was trying to ingratiate himself with the Church after the condemnation of many of his earlier movies, “The Miracle” in particular, by cardinals and by the US Catholic Legion of Decency.)
The restored print and sound are clear (this is a Criterion release, and they do things right there! The images are even sharper than on the Eureka PAL edition available in Europe). There are two very insightful analyses of the movie and its place in Rossellini’s body of work. The first (in English) comes from his daughter, Isabella Rossellini, who also adds some personal memories of her father and discusses her father’s relationship with Fellini and how their very different sensibilities worked perfectly together for this project. The second analysis (in Italian) comes from film historian Adriano Apra, who has interesting things to say about the movie’s place in Rossellini’s life and work. The extra drawing most heavily on “what Rossellini told me and what I think were his real feelings about religion” comes not form his daughter but from a Jesuit priest and film critic, Father Virgilio Fantuzzi. The disc also includes some of the preface to the movie, which laid out the 13th-century context in voice-over of paintings by Giotto and his followers. A longer preface was part of the film’s première at the Venice Film Festival, but was lost. (Apra reports that an eleventh vignette, involving Francis and a prostitute, was shot and edited, but excised before the Venice Film Festival showing. All that seems to remain of it is a still.) There is also a 32-page booklet that I have not seen.
The two movies starring Ingrid Bergman that Rossellini shot before and after “Little Flowers,” Stromboli (1949) and “Europa ’51” (1951, obviously) show modern women attempting to simplify their life. Bergman’s character in “Stromboli” has a spiritual epiphany on the slope of an active volcano (on an island west of Sicily). Her character in “Europa ’51” attempts to devote herself to those in need, but her family has her committed to a mental institution for her efforts, which must be Rossellini’s view of what would happen to a 20th-century St. Francis. The failure of grace in the ruins of Europe after World War II was also the subject of Rossellini’s “Germany, Year Zero”. Rossellini’s later movies were, like “Little Flowers,” focused on figures in history contributing to changes in consciousness (Francis was central to a revival of “primitive Christianity” that was accepted by Pope Innocent III).
©2005, Stephen O. Murray